“Don’t you see, Isadora, there is no ‘your poem, my poem’? There is no ‘your line, my line’? There is the language, and we are its vessels. We speak for the mouths that can’t speak, we speak their thoughts — not our own. That’s when we’re writing, when we’re pure. When we’re not writing we worry about ego, ego, ego, and the critics talk about ego, ego, ego. Whose by-line? Whose book? How long? Which prize? But the gift for language has no particular by-line — just a river doesn’t care if it stays in a given state. It will flow across boundary lines, down mountains, from one country into another, from one civilization into another. The small minds sit there labeling, arguing about naming things, arguing about by-lines, but the river just keeps flowing. It doesn’t care it’s called Jeannie River or Isadora River. It doesn’t care if it’s masculine in one state, feminine in another. It doesn’t care how many copies are bought, or what the reviews are, or if anyone gets paid. All it cares about is flowing. And you are its servant. Your only job and I mean only, is not to hold up its flow with your silly ego, your worries about approval or disapproval, about by-lines, about stealing this line or that, about second-guessing the public. Your only job is to go with the flow. The rest is not your business. Or mine.”
Jeannie’s audience was speechless and transfixed.
“You see,” she went on, “the river has more rights than the ego wants approval. The river has the only rights there are. Your big mistake, Isadora, is that you think it matters what the river is called, or who says what about the river. Is it a ‘profound river’? Is it ‘deft and lyrical’? Is it a ‘break-through’ river? Who cares — as long as it flows. All the rest is foolishness, distraction, jockeying for position and reputation — politics, in short. Your ego has no rights whatsoever in this matter. Nor do the egos of the critics have any rights whatsoever. The river has the only rights there are. And the river corresponds to the rights of the readers. Nobody else has any authority at all over the river — not the author, not the reviewer. It is only river and reader. The reader is like a fisherman, standing in thigh-high boots , in the midst of the rushing stream and catching what he can , trying to see his face in the moving water, trying to reel in his dinner. He has the rights — not you. You must only see to it that nothing dams up or diverts the river. You must let the river flow so he can see his face and possibly even catch his dinner. That’s all. That’s all there is to say about it.”
(Jeannie Morton to Isadora Duncan, from the novel “How to Save Your Own Life” by Erica Mann Jong, pp. 172-173, Signet, New York, 1977)
Therefore, to paraphrase Erica Jong (EJ): writer-wannabe, the world does not owe you anything, it does not revolve around you, you do not “deserve” to be read — deal with that and write.
EJ has saved my life a lot of times. So have Carl Sagan, JK Rowling, Stephen King (when he’s not being scary), Richard Dawkins, Iris Johansen, Linda Howard, Lisa Kleypas, Paul Farmer and Philip Zimbardo.
I’m not into wading through Hemingway or Tolstoy or Faulkner’s rivers. They are, as yet, too deep for me. Someday, I may develop enough gills to navigate their currents, but not just yet. Maybe next year.